The Monk is a gothic horror novel of the early period whose plot is steeped in blood, magic and a lead character happy to extol all of the cardinal sins. This central character is the monk Ambrosio, who respected for his pious nature and steadfast ways finds himself tempted by Matilda, a woman who has secreted herself within the Abbey by hiding as a monk.
No sooner has he fallen from grace by this transgression than he becomes entranced by Antonia who, on turning to the black arts as assisted by Matilda, he then ravishes and kills. With numerous incidental additional side tales of occult and supernatural, the book really is a tapestry of horror, and worthy forefather to the best of today’s modern horror novels.
Matthew Lewis’ gothic horror novel is a timeless classic in the very sense of the word. It was written in 1795, at a time when the subject matter really was considered truly shocking, enough so that the author courted controversy because of some of the books racier themes, and became known in life as Matthew ‘The Monk’ Lewis. Damned and praised in almost equal matter by the critics of the day (more so for its shocking content) even they considered the work to be clearly displaying elements of genius. All this was made more amazing by the fact Lewis was not yet twenty years old when the book was written.
Let’s be honest; sometimes when reading a book written a few hundred years ago an adaptation in reading styles is required. The text is consistently more wordy and verbose, often giving a rich reward to the reader who sticks with it, but sometimes making the process arduous when comparing it to a contemporary novel. With The Monk however, there isn’t so much of a ‘syrup of words’ for the reader to crawl through. The book reads fluently, and is much more accessible than one might imagine.
In that way it really does draw comparison to some of the more modern horror novels whose plots move along swiftly utilising various devices employed similarly by Lewis when he wrote this novel. And the plot is genius, not to mention daring.
Let us not forget the age in which this was written, and the scandal and damage that surrounded it at the time of its being published and in the years following it. Several of the latter editions were edited more heavily removing more scandalous inclinations from the prose, and Lewis himself spent years apologising to many, his father included, for any offence taken by the books undertones. Lewis was writing about corrupt religious figures engaging in all sorts of unholy misdeeds, at a time when this really wasn’t acceptable, even given the anti-Catholic bias that rang aloud in English society at the time.
The Monk is my favourite of the gothic novels, in fact it’s my favourite gothic horror novel in the period I consider the gothic novel to have run, from 1764 to 1901. Personally, I prefer it to The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, even Frankenstein and Dracula, all of which are strong novels and remain beloved for what they bring to the literary horror canon. The Monk is a daring, brave and chilling read. Years ahead of its time in vision and scope, it really is the kind of book that ignites passion in the genre.